The Extra Pass: The Raptors press pause, plus Wednesday’s recaps

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When Masai Ujiri jumped from the Denver Nuggets to the Toronto Raptors to take over as general manager, the objective was clear. Ujiri was to do what he does best: tear it down, and try to salvage as much value as possible from the mistakes made by the previous regime.

Ujiri hasn’t failed to live up to expectations. Getting a future first-round pick from an organization as dysfunctional as the Knicks…for Andrea Bargnani? Magic. Dumping Rudy Gay’s potentially massive deal next season on the Sacramento Kings? Smart.

There’s been some major addition by subtraction going on, as the Raptors are very clearly a much better team on both ends without the inefficiency of Gay and the ineptitude of Bargnani.

Dwane Casey, who looked to be playing the role of a lame duck coach, has cobbled together the 8th best defense in the league. Casey is often criticized, but he hangs his hat on defense, and the Raptors have bought in on that end.

Toronto’s vastly improved play (they’re at .500 and would host a playoff series if the season ended today) presents an interesting situation. Can the Raptors put their rebuild on hold? Is giving Ujiri a yellow light in potential trades, particularly given what he’s been able to pull off so far, the best thing for the long-term health of the franchise? Can Ujiri maintain the respect of the players and coaching staff if he continues the rebuilding process when the Raptors are playing their best basketball in a very long time?

Perhaps these are good problems to have, especially opposed to more hopeless ones — like not having enough talent. Toronto has been there, done that.

And while it seems unlikely that Ujiri will stop wheeling and dealing altogether, there are landmines everywhere on the roster. DeMar DeRozan, the player most likely to go in a full rebuild because of his long-term deal, may be the hardest worker and biggest fan-favorite on the team.

People can and will fall  in love with this group, so long as Ujiri lets them. While a general manager’s job isn’t to coddle fans, Ujiri will have a hard time selling the desire to create a “winning culture” if he puts a stop to one that’s developing.

Half measures in the NBA are usually met with derision. You should be all-in, or all-out, all the time. But the Raptors are a good example of why everything isn’t always so cut and dry. Every team wants to reach the same destination, naturally, but there are detours unique to each franchise along the way.

For the Raptors, that detour has been brought on by more winning. Good on them if they ride it out.

D.J. Foster

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Nets 102, Warriors 98: Brooklyn was without Deron Williams in this one, but still managed to end the Warriors’ 10-game winning streak thanks to 27 points from Joe Johnson, a nice overall performance from the bench unit and a throwback fourth quarter from Kevin Garnett. KG had 11 points in just eight minutes of the final period, to go along with three rebounds and two steals — one of which came against Stephen Curry on a critical possession with just 12 seconds left. Curry and Klay Thompson both had below average shooting nights for the second straight game, and played 45 and 43 minutes respectively on the second night of a back-to-back set to end a long seven-game road trip. That’s not ideal for the Warriors, and they may need to trade for some additional help if they want to achieve their ultimate goal this season. –– BP

Spurs 112, Mavericks 90: We’ll go out on a limb here and point out that when four of your team’s starting five, including your franchise’s best player combine to shoot 10-of-36 fro the field, you’re probably not going to win on that particular night. The box score on the Mavericks end looked like a horror show in that regard, with only Monta Ellis and Vince Carter managing to finish in double figures scoring. The Spurs were efficient as always, shooting 52.6 percent as a team with Tony Parker and Tim Duncan leading the way with rock solid performances. — BP

Raptors 112, Pistons 91: Toronto has solidified itself as the third best team in the East since trading Rudy Gay to Sacramento, and the Pistons continue to struggle in fourth quarters to the point where it’s becoming as darkly comical as it is predictable. Something happens to Detroit at halftime, and whatever it is needs to change or the team will have trouble snapping out of a losing funk that’s now reached six straight games. In this one, the Pistons managed just 37 second half points as they were outscored by 25 points over the game’s final two periods. — BP

Hawks 97, Pacers 87: Sometimes, it’s easy to explain why an elite team lost to an average one, and this was a prime example. When Roy Hibbert disappears, so does the Pacers’ status as one of the league’s best teams. Hibbert couldn’t do much of anything offensively, and finished 1-of-8 from the field with two points and four rebounds in 22 minutes. That contributed to an inefficient 11-of-25 performance from Paul George, but for a Pacers team playing its fourth game in five nights, this was a schedule loss more than anything else. The Hawks had five players finish in double figures, and led by as many as 25 points. — BP

Wizards 102, Pelicans 96: Washington took charge of this game with a 12-0 run to start the second quarter on a night they got good bench play from guys like Garrett Temple and Jan Vesely. It looked like the Wizards would get a laugher, leading by 23 in the fourth quarter, but a 21-4 New Orleans run made it interesting late. Trevor Ariza had 21 points including some key threes, and John Wall had 20. Eric Gordon led a listless Pelicans team with 23. — KH

Rockets 113, Lakers 99: Houston got focused in the third quarter and ran away with it behind 38 points from James Harden. We broke this game down in more detail here. –KH

Suns 104, Timberwolves 103: Minnesota continues to find painful ways to lose close games — Phoenix went on a 9-1 run to close out the game capped by a Gerald Green bucket to come from behind to steal a win. This was a Suns team without Eric Bledsoe on the second night of a back-to-back, but they executed at the end of the game and once again the Timberwolves did not — Minnesota is now 0-10 in games decided by four points or less. Some of that is bad luck, but some of it is just execution under pressure and this team has to figure out how to do that if they are going to get over .500. Goran Dragic had 26 for the Suns, Kevin Martin had 20 for the Timberwolves. — KH

Trail Blazers 110, Magic 94: Orlando actually led much of the first three quarters and looked like they might pull off an upset — mostly because the vaunted Blazers offense was off, shooting just 41.8 percent through three quarters. Orlando also got a boost from Arron Afflalo, who had 14 of his 22 in the second quarter. Then Portland woke up for the fourth, shot 60 percent, knocked down 5 threes and won the final 12 minutes 39-19. Ballgame. LaMarcus Aldridge had 26 points for Portland. –KH

Clippers 111, Celtics 105: Every win the Clippers get without Chris Paul in the lineup is a good one — they are 3-1 since the injury. The Clippers raced out to a 26-10 lead behind Blake Griffin, who had 11 of his 29 in the first quarter. Then of course the Clippers relaxed and Boston fought back, but in the third the Clippers regained control and held on for the win. Jamal Crawford had 26 for the Clippers. Avery Bradley and Jordan Crawford each had 24 for Boston. Oh, and Griffin destroyed Kris Humphries on a dunk. — KH

Kevin Durant says Luka Doncic ‘didn’t have to go to class, study hall’

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Dallas Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic Has been a professional basketballer since he was 16 years old, first appearing with the top-tier Real Madrid squad in the ACB in 2015. Doncic has been a resident of Spain since he was 13, and as such he has needed to complete specific schooling as required by Spanish law.

Nobody told Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant that.

In a recent comment about Doncic to media, Durant said that he felt as though part of the reason the Mavericks rookie has a leg up is because he has been able to focus on basketball for much longer than some of his American compatriots.

Via ESPN:

“He played in Europe last season. The rest of the rookie class played in college. So he’s in the second best league in the world learning how to play the game. He didn’t have to go to class, study hall, none of that extra stuff the rest of the guys had to go through, he was just focusing on his game probably since he was 14 years old. So that’s an advantage for him and you could tell that he’s not shy, he’s not afraid of the moment. And he’s going to be a force.”

Durant’s information about Doncic doesn’t appear to be based in fact. Doncic completed his Spanish schooling according to Eurohoops.net, which would mean he’s had to participate in academics up until last year. While Doncic has been a professional — and has been getting paid above board longer than other rookies — it’s not as though he hasn’t had to complete schooling.

This also raises some comparative questions about what Durant thinks goes on for kids in high-level AAU programs, top high school academies in the U.S., or even for players like Durant himself, who played just one year in college. That’s before we even get into semantics about the rigor of academics for sports phenomenons, home and abroad.

The mystery of European prospects has started to fade, but international players still have some kind of shroud hanging around them for people in the U.S., and that includes NBA players. It’s best to get out of this type of thing early and dispel it with the facts we know and have available to us. Durant was being complimentary, of course, but the Warriors forward saying Doncic has been focusing on nothing but basketball since he left middle school is a bridge too far.

In any case, there’s no doubt Doncic is going to be a force. We all picked him for Rookie of the Year, and unless someone stops him that’s exactly what he’s going to be.

Report: Lakers to change up lineups in lieu of LeBron, wins

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The Los Angeles Lakers are not a good basketball team without LeBron James. This is fairly obvious, and we knew the ultimate test heading into this season would be if James suffered an injury that kept him out for a significant period of time.

Of course we have been able to test this theory firsthand this season as LeBron has not played since a 127-101 win over the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day. The Lakers have lost seven of their last 10 games, and so head coach Luke Walton has decided to switch up his starting lineup.

Both Josh Hart and JaVale McGee will find themselves in the reserve rotation moving forward for Los Angeles.

Via Twitter:

McGee started the season strong but has seen a downward trend in subsequent months. McGee’s rebounding numbers and have been disappointing as of late, but most shocking has been his field goal percentage. He’s been hovering in the low-60s all season long but in the month of January McGee has dipped to just 47.4 percent.

Hart has been relatively steady, although January has been hard on him from beyond the 3-point line. Typically a reliable outside shooter, Hart has shot just 17.5 percent from downtown since the start of the new year.

No doubt Walton is hoping that a change in the lineup will help alter some of the scouting opponents have against the Lakers, as well as revitalize both McGee and Hart individually.

Terry Rozier on Celtics’ challenge: “Too talented, yeah. Too talented.”

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Too many mouths to feed.

Among the many “what is wrong with the Celtics?” theories the idea that there are too many players who want touches and shots had a lot of traction around the league. Last playoffs, then rookie Jayson Tatum, second-year player Jaylen Brown, and “scary” Terry Rozier had increased roles — and thrived. They were the alphas (along with Al Horford), the guys with the ball in their hands leading a team to the conference finals, and they liked it — these are young players trying to carve out a role (or, in Rozier’s case, prove to other team’s he’s a starting point guard) and they didn’t want to take a step back. But that’s what had to happen with the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to the rotation. The result was a lack of a pecking order on offense, uncomfortable sacrifices, and precious little of the fluid play that got them within a game of the Finals a year ago.

Rozier seems to agree with that theory, speaking to Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports in a story about Kyrie Irving’s adjustment to being a leader.

“I don’t think we’ve all been on a team like this,” Rozier told Yahoo. “Young guys who can play, guys who did things in their career, the group that was together last year, then you bring Kyrie and Hayward back, it’s a lot with it.”

When asked if the roster was too talented, Rozier didn’t back down.

“Too talented, yeah. Too talented.”

If everyone buys in, if everyone sacrifices (including Irving), if guys are willing to accept a role, all that talent can make the Celtics versatile and the team everyone expected. The team to beat in the East.

To get there will require Irving to be a leader — in words and actions. That’s more than just calling out the young core, it’s getting them involved and feeling like contributors so they are willing to make sacrifices. It’s doing the little things yourself. Can Irving do all that and turn Boston into the conference favorite we expected.

Or were Nets fans right, he is going to get frustrated and leave this summer?

The second half of this season in Boston is going to be fascinating.

Philadelphia signs Corey Brewer to 10-day contract in effort to add depth

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The Philadelphia 76ers remain a step behind Toronto and Milwaukee — and maybe Boston — in the Eastern Conference, despite adding Jimmy Butler to form a “big three” with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. One issue is getting those three to make sacrifices to their games and meld together. The second big issue is depth: J.J. Redick is their fourth best player, then things drop off a cliff.

Enter veteran Corey Brewer.

For at least 10 days, anyway.

The 76ers signed Brewer to a 10-day contract, the team announced Tuesday.

“For me, I love playing basketball. I just wanted another opportunity,” Brewer told NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I feel like I did enough last year that I should be on a team. But sometimes things don’t work out the right way … you can’t look it like that. An opportunity is an opportunity. I get to come here, and I gotta prove myself…

“I’m like a glue guy,” he said. “I do all the little stuff. I play hard, I’m going to run hard, and I feel like the way Ben [Simmons] pushes it, that’s right up my alley.”

Brewer is the king of the leak out and may benefit from some Simmons passes that way.

Brewer split time last season between the Lakers and Thunder, and in OKC he showed he could play a role on the right team and shot 34.3 percent from three. That fit was not evident on the young Lakers, Brewer looked out of place and struggled with his shot, which is likely why he was not able to land a guaranteed contract this past offseason.

This is a 10-day contract, the Sixers can sign him to two of those before having to either let him go or commit to him for the rest of the season. This is likely the first in a series of roster moves over the next few weeks as Elton Brand looks to find the right pieces to go around his big three stars so the team can make a push this offseason.